Inquiring minds want to know 

The same day a U.S. Senate committee launched hearings on a secret National Security Administration program that’s eavesdropping without warrants on American citizens’ international communications, Montana Sen. Ken Toole, D-Helena, and Rep. Brady Wiseman, D-Bozeman, asked the state’s top federal prosecutor to disclose whether the controversial program has targeted Montanans.

The Feb. 6 letter to U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer asks whether “any Montana citizens or groups are currently or have ever been the target of wire-tapping, spying or surveillance without a court order.”

“Everyone agrees that our nation’s intelligence apparatus should protect Americans, but it is also our duty to investigate whenever the government violates our civil liberties by spying on innocent American citizens,” the letter reads.

Mercer’s office says the request has been forwarded to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

On Feb. 6, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified the program was lawful and essential, though senators from both sides of the aisle expressed skepticism about the program’s legitimacy, and anger that President Bush authorized the program without Congress’ permission. Bush recently defended the program as crucial in the fight against terrorism.

Toole’s and Wiseman’s letter draws attention to a 2005 resolution the Montana Legislature passed with 85 percent approval that opposes erosion of civil liberties under the PATRIOT Act.

Several times throughout American history—for instance, World War II Japanese internment camps and World War I sedition laws—officials have used national security concerns to justify circumscribing civil rights, and the secret wiretapping program smacks of that logic, Toole says.

“Nobody ever walks in and says ‘let’s suspend civil liberties because it’s a good idea,’” he says. “It’s always justified by a perceived threat, and I often think a very poorly defined threat.”

Toole says he doesn’t hope to learn specific names of Montanans monitored under the program, but he does want to know whether it’s encroached upon Montanans generally.

“We need to be very careful about this, and wiretaps not supported by court order are something we should all be worried about,” Toole says.

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